Heinz Holliger: Lunea (ECM New Series 2622)

Heinz Holliger

Christian Gerhaher baritone
Julian Banse soprano
Ivan Ludlow baritone
Sarah Maria Sun soprano
Annette Schönmüller soprano
Philharmonia Zürich
Basler Madrigalisten

Heinz Holliger conductor
Recorded live March 2018
Opernhaus Zürich
Recording producer and editing: Andreas Werner
Recording engineer: Stefan Hächler
Assistant engineers: Alice Fischer and Philip Erdin
Cover sketches by Heinz Holliger / photo by Thomas Wunsch
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Co-production of ECM Records/Opera Zurich/SRF 2 Kultur
Release date: April 22, 2022

I am my own echo, but one eternally rigid and pinned down.
An echo nailed to the rock.

Heinz Holliger’s Lunea, described by the Swiss composer as his “dream opera,” grew out of a song cycle of the same name for baritone and piano. By 2017, Holliger had reworked it into its present form for the stage. Based on the demise of Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850), who scribbled down outbursts during his years in an asylum, Lunea anagrams his name as a way of illuminating his poetic psychosis, thus hinting at the linguistic fragmentations we will encounter. As noted by baritone Christian Gerhaher, who seems born to sing this role: “Holliger presents these attempts on the part of the stricken poet to record his indescribable yet exquisitely traversed suffering—frightful and vivid experiences incapable of being communicated to another being.” And yet, communicate he does through a characteristically exquisite ear for nuance.

Whether by instinct or design, all of the artists of Holliger’s incidental interest, from Friedrich Hölderlin to Robert Schumann, are bound by the tattered thread of mental illness. His willingness to give them a mouthpiece through the score, of which language is a key instrument, finds a willing accomplice in Händl Klaus, whose libretto contextualizes 23 “leaves” in a space without linear order. Holliger’s approach to the text is microscopic in spirit but grand in scope. And yet, as Roman Brotbeck observes, “[N]othing is blurred; everything is as clear as glass and laid out by Holliger with maximum lucidity.” 

Holliger and Klaus pieced the opera together through fragments written on paper slips, glued with phrases (both musical and oral-motor) into shape. In doing so, they sought to resolve each sentence (or even word within it) through interpretation. If any plot can be discerned in all of this, it is embodied in the character of Lenau himself, whose cogent coterie of family members and acquaintances populates a bare environment like projections of his many sides. Lenau’s alter ego is Anton Xaver Schurz (1794-1859), a constant companion throughout his illness who also married his sister and published a nearly 800-page biography of Lenau in 1855. The women in Lenau’s life, including Sophie von Löwenthal (a platonic lover), Marie Behrends (his fiancée), and sister Therese, lend worldliness (if not also wordiness) to his isolation.

Holliger’s love for speech abounds, as when he incorporates the character of Justinus Kerner, a physician and close friend who, in 1850 (the year of Lenau’s death) began making what he called “klecksographs”—inkblot pictures mirrored by folding pieces of paper into symmetrical images. Following this, the opera is symmetrically arranged around the stroke Lenau experienced in September 29, 1844. Long before that, the opening speaks is as if through a layer of rice paper. Low reeds and an intoning chorus give way to Lenau’s amorous deteriorations. This is the asylum, a space in which the mind has free reign even as the body is contained. Such is the contradiction of operatic space: a stage that delineates mise-en-scène while opening our hearts to its inner flames. Holliger understands this in both the most traditional and postmodern sense.

For Lenau, “Man is a beachcomber at the sea of eternity,” and so might we call the instruments, among which the violin, cimbalom (Hungarian dulcimer), and bassoon move as characters in their own right. Each slices mortality at a different angle, offering us unrepeatable cross-sections of emotional sediment. As waves of utterances and choral echoes navigate the scrapheap of a broken mind, we are privy to glimpses of recovery and tension in kind. Some of the most profound moments are shared between Lenau and Sophie. Their wordless breathing in the Fourth Leaf palpitates the ears. And it is Sophie who, in Leaf Nine, brings the most hopeful beauties into focus. Such respite is brief and occasional, as in the skyward harmonies of the Sixth Leaf, whereas the most powerful interruptions (such as that by Sophie again in the Eleventh Leaf) make the morbid grays and charcoals of the opera’s fulcrum that much more morose.

In one key scene, played out in the Fourteenth Leaf, Lenau leaps from the window in desperation before bowing the violin in a cathartic dance of healing. What follows from here to the end is a reversion into childhood (Fifteenth Leaf) before solitary madness sets in. Turning as a revolving door from one state of mind to another, the chorus voices the multiplicity of his demise. The final part is a gravelly expression of death borders that burrows into the reptilian brain.

While Lunea is a chain of intimate fascinations as only Holliger can link, it is best appreciated with the booklet in hand, ready to absorb the fragments at hand and assemble them into your own whole. Its brilliance comes to life through the heartbeat of its concepts. Then again, the disorientation of not knowing where our ears might land next is appropriate enough when scrutinizing a mind that might never have demanded more. Hence the significance of Gerhaher being the only singer who doesn’t perform multiple rolls, at once emphasizing Lenau’s splintered cognizance and his insistence on maintaining an identity through it all. For a man who saw the moon as “a luminous, drifting tomb,” death was, perhaps, the only certainty.

Heinz Holliger/György Kurtág Zwiegespräche (ECM New Series 2665)


Heinz Holliger
György Kurtág

Heinz Holliger oboe, English horn, piano
Marie-Lise Schüpbach English horn, oboe
Sarah Wegener soprano
Enresto Molinari bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet
Philippe Jaccottet recitation
Recorded June 2018, Radiostudio DRS Zürich
Engineer: Andreas Werner
Philippe Jaccottet was recorded August 2017
in Grignan by Nicolas Baillard, Studios La Buissonne
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 24, 2019

Swifts turn in the heights of the air;
higher still turn the invisible stars.
When day withdraws to the ends of the earth
their fires shine on a dark expanse of sand.
–Philippe Jaccottet

If it comes as no surprise that Heinz Holliger and György Kurtág, perennial names in the ECM New Series roster, studied composition under Sándor Veress (cf. ECM 1555), then neither should the inevitability of blending their artistry in one of the most seamless programs to grace the imprint in recent years. Holliger, for his part, found a kindred spirit in Kurtág from day one: “Every note he writes is essential; there is never an idea of small talk…of wanting to please somebody or an audience.” The overarching title Zwiegespräche (“dialogues”) accurately describes the music. For indeed, when their works are placed side by side, a distinctly conversational rapport grows. These dialogues, however, extend beyond the composers themselves and into realms of texts, other musicians, and spaces of interpretation, so that in the listener’s walk from one end to the other, it becomes difficult to tell where Holliger’s terrains end and Kurtág’s begin.

If both are melodic composers, a memorial heart distinguishes a significant portion of Kurtág’s output. Most poignant in that regard is his …Ein Brief aus der Ferne an Ursula (2014) for oboe solo. Written just days before the death of Holliger’s wife Ursula (see, e.g., Lieder ohne Worte), it’s a loving tribute that wants to dance but instead curls into itself. The follow-up …für Heinz… (2014) is scored for piano, left hand, thus symbolizing Ursula’s absence. Its dissonances rest in brief catharsis.

A brighter pairing finds itself represented in both composers’ settings of the same text by 17th-century mystic and poet Angelus Silesius. Dating from 2010, they feature soprano in the leading role. Where Holliger adds oboe, English horn, and bass clarinet, Kurtág pairs the voice with English horn only. Holliger’s version was written while in hospital, where he challenged himself to write a madrigal each day during his recovery. Kurtág’s likewise pulls on inner filaments of mortality.

A standout of the album is Holliger’s Berceuse pour M. (2015), performed on English horn by his pupil Marie-Lise Schüpbach. Like her teacher, Schüpbach displays immaculate breath control and a balance of light and shadow. Holliger’s interpretations of seven poems by Philippe Jaccottet are equally moving. Each is read by the poet himself, and the words, written beneath corresponding notes in the score, are matched by oboe and English horn in extractions of hidden messages. The piercing altissimo of “Dans l’étendue…” and vocal inflections of “Je marche…” are especially visceral. Even the programmatic touches of “Oiseaux” feel more than reactive: they are cocreators in an extra-linguistic process.

Back in Kurtág’s world, a sequence of dedicatory aphorisms unfurls. Of these, the most naked are those written for contrabass clarinet solo. Schatten makes delicate use of key clicks and barest breath, and Kroó György in memoriam, written for radio editor and music critic György Kroó, rarely transcends a whisper. At more than six minutes, the latter feels like a novel compared to the short stories that surround it. The Hommage à Elliott Carter (for English horn and contrabass clarinet) and In Nomine – all-ongherese (Damjanich emlékkö) for English horn solo are vibrantly noteworthy as well.

Holliger finishes with his solo oboe Sonate. Composed in 1956/57 and revised in 1999, it is recorded for the first time here, after 63 years of sitting on paper since he penned it for Veress’s composition class. In it we can hear Veress’s influence on the younger composer, if not also Holliger’s on the older. From the leaping Präludium to the virtuosic Finale, ponderance of nature outweighs the nature of ponderance, leaving us with nothing short of a masterpiece.

We live in a world of motion and distance.
The heart flies from tree to bird,
from bird to distant star,
from star to love; and love grows
in the quiet house, turning and working,
servant of thought, a lamp held in one hand.

Heinz Holliger: Machaut-Transkriptionen (ECM New Series 2224)


Heinz Holliger

Muriel Cantoreggi viola
Geneviève Strosser viola
Jürg Dähler viola
The Hilliard Ensemble
David James countertenor
Rogers Covey-Crump tenor
Steven Harrold tenor
Gordon Jones baritone
Recorded November 2010, Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Andreas Werner
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: November 6, 2015

the eye, go,
to the moist—
hurricanes, from wherever,
particle drift, the other,
know the one, we
read it in the book, it was
–Paul Celan, “Stretto”

Whether as composer, oboist, or conductor, Heinz Holliger never ceases to delight and surprise. His commitment to classical music has produced some of the most enduring documents on ECM’s New Series, including one of that imprint’s indisputable masterpieces, the Scardanelli-Zyklus. Here we have yet another turnaround, one that speaks with the open style in which Holliger has become so fluent. Featuring a host of accomplished interpreters—including the now-defunct Hilliard Ensemble—bringing to life a 21st-century cycle of works around the 14th-century French composer Guillaume de Machaut, the Machaut-Transkriptionen (2001-09) represent nearly a decade’s worth of thinking and rethinking through the past in a language of the future. Scored for an unusual combination of four voices and three violas, it weaves direct transcriptions of Machaut into Holliger’s idiosyncratic odes to the same.

Holliger Portrait

This is one of those distinctively ECM projects, which, like Ricercar, unravels the avant-garde core of centuries-old music. The compact macramé, for example, that is Machaut’s hallmark is on full display in the program’s introductory Biaute qui toutes autre pere, wherein something more than ink and paper have convened to elicit vital sounds. If the feeling of this balladry is loving and sincere, even more so is Holliger’s enhancement of its rules in his own Ballade IV for three violins. More than ever before, Holliger has built his cathedral out of transparent stone, blacking out the windows, so that the sunlight might be its dominant form of expression. In this sense, Holliger is engaging with Machaut not as the target of an homage, but as the living force of an artist whose music breathes in the winds that shake his boughs. Use of untempered harmonics, transcribed note for note from the original, allows incidental commentary in this regard to seep through.

A second diptych, this time around Machaut’s Ballade XXVI: Donnez, Seigneur, transforms the gently sloping path of the original—in which countertenor David James at once renders the skin and the heart keeping it alive—into the wilder detours traced by the present recasting. And while the latter may seem more oblique in its structure, it also shares with its referent a clarity of expression. Both are neural mappings, very much alive in and beyond the confines of a single recorded performance. Even the wordless Hoquetus David of Machaut and Holliger’s responsory Triple Hoquet feel more like pieces of the same puzzle than distant cousins separated by time. Holliger gives us something of a granular synthesis of the former, an embodiment of Celan’s hurricane in the fullest sense.

A single voice retains the melody of Machaut’s Lay VII in a standalone arrangement, while guided improvisations flesh out its branches with unpredictable fruit. The Hilliards are best equipped to handle this flower without damaging a single petal. A beautiful piece that challenges not through its dissonances but through its consonances, as does its analogous In(ter)ventio a 3 und Plor- / Prol- / Or- atio for three violins, which from recitative beginnings morphs into a staggered prolation of time signatures, based on the Complainte of Machaut’s Remede de Fortune. That same piece lingers on in the final statement, in which it is combined with an “Epilogue” that unites voices and strings in quadrilateral fashion, distilled until only friction remains.

In a universe of countless musical systems, Holliger and his celestial body of work have always charted unprecedented orbits through the space-time continuum. Given the way in which he has refracted himself through Machaut, the sublimity of their intersection is clear, for both have stumbled on the fragility of human contact, tracing its origins just shy of rupture.

Robert Schumann/Heinz Holliger: Aschenmusik (ECM New Series 2395)


Robert Schumann
Heinz Holliger

Heinz Holliger oboe, oboe d’amore
Anita Leuzinger violoncello
Anton Kernjak piano
Recorded July 2012 and November 2013, Radio Studio Zürich
Engineer: Andreas Werner
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
An ECM/SRF2 Kultur co-production
Executive producer (SRF): Roland Wächter

The solar system of Swiss oboist and composer Heinz Holliger has always thrived in a clockwork universe of innovation, but Aschenmusik may just be his most super nova yet. This second major ECM reckoning with the legacy of his much-admired Robert Schumann not only follows in the footsteps of Romancendres but also retreads them with finer shoes. By paying homage to Schumann’s Five Romances of 1853, forever lost to flames by wife Clara’s own consignment, Holliger works through personal frustrations over unrecoverable music by fleshing out the body of its ghostly narrative—the only indication that remains of its certain brilliance.

Romancendres is written for the same combination of cello and piano, and in this expanded version opens the ears to further allusions and cryptographies. Both instruments push their harmonic boundaries, thereby revealing—if not also reveling in—Holliger’s inner turmoil over the loss of Schumann’s score. Cellist Anita Leuzinger walks a tightrope, which like an electrical line through pruned trees carries energy powerful enough to kill. The cello’s vocal qualities and the piano’s percussive are magnified to the point of vulnerability, as emphasized in the fractures and tremors of the latter movements. Yet none of it approaches the masterstroke of the tensile second, in which pianist Anton Kernjak tinkers with a vessel that is constantly being broken by the Leuzinger’s need for sailing. The underlying now becomes the overlying and spins the globe not on an axis of poles but equator. In this decidedly rhythmic piece the piano is beaten, struck, and plucked while the cello ascends microscopic ladders and leaves only water-drop pizzicati to show for its swan dive.

Surrounding this modern morsel are some of Schumann’s latest and greatest, of which the Six Studies in Canonic Form, Op. 56, are a delight to hear in such fine company. Holliger, who here plays the violin part on the reedier oboe d’amore along with Leuzinger and Kernjak, makes a convincing case for these neglected masterworks. More than studies, they are fully matured bodies of exceptional beauty and proportion that effortlessly shine Baroque counterpoint through the foliage of Romanticism. Some are more playful and have an air of the salon, while others are gravid, tonic. Still others are more bucolic, but ever aware of the physical relationships between instruments. The marching fifth receives a particularly artful navigation of pianistic harmonies and rhythm changes, while the elegiac sixth ends on a sigh.

The Three Romances for oboe and piano, Op. 94, showcase Holliger’s peerless tone on the oboe. In these pieces he navigates an ocean swell of piano, its tidal differences yielding the wreckage of a crumbling mind. The insistent, even desperate, quality of the music speaks of an unrequited love that yearns to jump across vast stretches of barren landscape and straight into the heart of one who decomposes beneath it. The final movement unfolds like a map to a very different territory, leaving two shadows for every ray of light.

The second movement of the F-A-E Sonata, excised from a four-part exercise written in collaboration with Johannes Brahms and student Albert Dietrich, is an extant Romance. In this arrangement for oboe (originally violin) and piano, its lilting poetry serves as a bridge into Schumann’s First Violin Sonata, Op. 105, played here on cello. Yet even the glorious first and final movements can do little to conceal the darkness encroaching on Schumann’s cells. Such dynamic realism is not a fight against fantasy but an acknowledgment of its necessity. The central Allegretto follows an arc-like text, which the musicians read with such fluency and through which they relay objective punctuation and subjective expression.

True to the music, in which depth is to be found within the score, not around it, engineer Andreas Werner foregoes studio ornaments in favor of something less mitigated. Having deftly centered Holliger’s oboe on Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis and allowed the violin of Thomas Zehetmair and viola of Ruth Killius to reach out with so much of their spirits intact, Werner was an ideal choice for the present recording. Schumann’s art proves its centrality, activating as it does so much of what makes us live, even when we are no longer around to be aware of living.

(To hear samples of Aschenmusik, click here.)

Heinz Holliger: Lieder ohne Worte (ECM New Series 1618)


Heinz Holliger
Lieder ohne Worte

Thomas Zehetmair violin
Thomas Larcher piano
Ursula Holliger harp
Recorded June 1996 at Radio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

After an already healthy representation of the compositional prowess of Heinz Holliger, ECM decided to put out this disc pairing some of his earliest work from the sixties with that of decades later, thereby providing an engaging survey of a musical mind that turns like a kaleidoscope: holding tight to symmetries so that it might fragment their interiors in ever-novel, I would say linguistic, combinations. For indeed, language is what Holliger is all about. From the poetry that inspired him as a youth to the poetry that he creates as an adult, the Swiss composer revels in every portion of his mental reserve to fish out some of the most heartfelt music of the twentieth century.

The tactility of Holliger’s instrumental renderings always seem to have something of the human voice about them. Every cell is marked by the potentially vulnerable transfiguration of form, a breaking down or “clearing of the throat” by which the musical moment is rendered chalk-like in the face of its own palimpsestial illusions. The two sets of Lieder ohne Worte that embrace this disc turn the standard violin/piano duo inward, ever refracted toward a conversation comprised entirely of afterthoughts. Although generally light, it sometimes dips into urgent proposals to which the only desired answer can be a heavy silence. Both instruments become frames. The two Intermezzi recall Holliger’s 1982 Duo for violin and cello, linking adverbial phrases with descriptive trails. Songs without words, yes, but aren’t they always, for once they escape the lips they have already transcended the limitations of their shaping toward more distant reverberations.

In the Sequenzen über Johannes I, 23 for harp (played to perfection by wife Ursula), Holliger’s trademark fractures are filled by the plasma of fingertips, while the Präludium, Arioso und Passacaglia for the sameblush with savory dexterity. With the restrained ferocity of a classical guitarist, Ursula evokes an elastic space in which the life of any single note is determined by its distance from the body.

Two solo pieces fill in the eye sockets of this sonic skull. On the left is the winking Trema in a version for violin. Anyone used to the original for cello is sure to be caught up in the stark new textures. Where the cello draws that trembling forth from deep within its bowels, here it issues from the nostrils of a head animated by vehement denial. Yet in that denial is an unspoken (and unspeakable) commitment to self-reformation, to the idea that within the brain there is enough room to squeeze in all life experience into a single synapsial firing. The expediency of the lie is betrayed by its brevity. On the right are the three drowsy piano miniatures that make up Elis. In these vibrant fits there are only dreams. Rather than try to smooth them into a unified narrative, Holliger allows their worth to come clambering into our attention at whatever pace it chooses. A few extended techniques, like the hitting of a dampened string, emit flashes of color in an otherwise monochromatic field.

Holliger is notable for being a composer duly aware of the importance of space: between notes, between pieces, between selves. The stillness thereof is so heavy that, rather than falling like a stone, every note floats like a particle of windblown pollen. And in the hands of such astute performers, we begin to feel windblown ourselves.

Heinz Holliger: Induuchlen (ECM New Series 2201)


Heinz Holliger

Anna Maria Bacher recitation
Albert Streich recitation
Sylvia Nopper soprano
Kai Wessel countertenor
Olivier Darbellay horn
Matthias Würsch percussion
Swiss Chamber Soloists
Heinz Holliger conductor
Recorded 2007-2010
Engineer: Andreas Werner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Ever since the star-covered Scardanelli-Zyklus found its way into my life, Heinz Holliger’s increasingly fractal compositions have been a vital part of my personal development. As a teenager, I felt such an intense connection to the early ECM Holliger releases that I used an online message board (back when such things were novel) as a venue to proclaim Holliger as one of the most important composers of the century. I was immediately met with a smattering of criticism, of which one comment remains lodged in my mind: “Though Holliger is a talented musician and, I admit, an interesting composer, I don’t think his colleagues or family members would ever consider him ‘important.’” In my youthful naïveté, I accepted this contention and shied away from mine. And yet now, some fifteen years later, I find my initial reactions being confirmed by critics and friends, all of whom have long recognized the significance of his multifarious deeds. I relate this anecdote not to underscore my prophetic abilities, nonexistent as they are, but only to direct the listener’s attention to the depth of Holliger’s output and the uncanny ways it has of getting under our skin over time.

This is an album of many things: silence and half-language, shadow and movement, liminality and articulation. Through a technique that Holliger calls “vocal masking,” potentially straightforward motives are turned in on themselves, such that by the end our memories speak not in solos but in delicate aftershocks. Continuing the composer’s interest in marginal voices begun in such works as Beiseit is Puneigä. Reading like a well-compressed Scardanelli dissected under a microscope, it begins with the Walser-German poetry of Anna Maria Bacher (recited by Bacher herself) followed by Holliger’s spidery and biologically attuned settings thereof. In the absence of English translations, these pieces are left for the rest of us to emote on their own terms. And perhaps this is for the best, as Holliger has always seemed to approach a given text from the inside looking out, such that we need never concern ourselves with the arbitrary contours of its many surfaces. Either way, in them one can hear the cellular approach of his craft, an approach that seems as interested in unpacking language as it is in dismantling it. One hears this especially in the rattles and hums of the Zwischenspielen, each a wondrous division of spatial relationships that is incidental only to itself. Rotating through a series of watery reflections (“Wen mu plangät), earthly contacts (“Hêif!”), and reverberations (“Der Toot”), images stick out with the quiet interruption of a rock protruding from the glassy sheet of a waterfall. Within each rests the lock to a key.

Albert Streich’s poem “Induuchlen,” also prefaced from the author’s lips, provides a verbal runway into the soaring title piece for countertenor and natural horn. Holliger’s work gains facets the more its performers are reduced in number, and here one finds a wealth of such demands. Yet these are handled with such grace that one might think the results were entirely improvised. The countertenor is asked not only to plumb the depths of his baritone register, but even to step beyond them into some uncanny quotidian realm of, I daresay, Wagnerian anxiety, for indeed the music’s deepest secrets are, not unlike the sword in Die Walküre, fully visible yet can only be dislodged with the attendant promise of self-destruction. Here is a matrix of auditory gravel in which tremolos gasp, where overlays misalign, and from which arises a golem who seeks clouds more than land.

Embracing these throated reliefs is a frame of chamber works. Toronto-Exercises speaks in aphasic mumblings, which is to say in a vocabulary at once molecular, somnambulate, and exquisite. Scrapings, flaps, shivers, and overtones carve a broken chain of stone through this gorgeous little quatrain of forested sounds, while the fractured virtuosity of the percussive Ma’mounia deciphers its own fingerprints one vein at a time, releasing the screams and helical motives squirming therein.

Holliger’s is the music of a soul in search of those intricate gifts that enliven our bodies and minds. It is highly idiosyncratic and yet speaks of a wide-reaching science. For the sake of analogy, one might say he sits comfortably between Lachenmann and Kurtág, singing through the sometimes haunting immediacy of the former while holding close the latter’s appreciation for the miniature. In doing so, he gives us a medium of the anti-essence, wherein breathes only the potential for quiet rupture. He speaks more than any other composer I know, and yet never proselytizes.

Like an Italo Calvino novel, this music ladles over us a pathos we have long forgotten and through which we only now find a chance to embrace anew.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (ECM New Series 2229)

Johann Sebastian Bach
Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis

Heinz Holliger oboe
Erich Höbarth violin, direction
Camerata Bern
Recorded December 20-22, 2010
Radiostudio Zürich
Engineer: Andreas Werner
Produced by Manfred Eicher

a tree, of one.
Yes, of it too. And of the woods around it. Of the woods
Untrodden, of the
thought they grew from, as sound
and half-sound and changed sound and terminal sound…
–Paul Celan, “And with the Book from Tarussa” (trans. Pierre Joris)

On October 4th, within an hour of having listened to this album for the first time, I went out for lunch, when I noticed a peculiar sight. There, sitting at an outdoor table, was a hermetic figure with a Monarch butterfly resting on his outstretched hand. How could I not engage him in a conversation? The man, I soon found out, was Rolfe Sokol, a local fixture in Ithaca, New York for over a decade and one of the most sought-after violin teachers in the area. Rolfe had saved the injured butterfly after spotting her on the side of the road. During her recovery from two crimped legs and a damaged wing, she hardly left him. As Rolfe animatedly informed me, drawing his story as he might a bow, the butterfly spent most of her time on his shoulder or perched on a finger, living off the sugar water he provided. When she had recovered enough to make short flights, he took her to the park, where she greeted strangers but always returned.

Rolfe and I inevitably turned to topics musical. After being regaled with stories of some of my favorite violinists and composers, I asked if he was familiar with ECM Records and with Heinz Holliger’s latest Bach recording. Though the answer was no on both counts, he did tell me how the butterfly reacted most positively, fluttering her wings and “stamping” her forelegs, whenever he or his students played Bach. Upon hearing this, I immediately asked for Rolfe’s address and later sent him a copy of Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis to aid in the butterfly’s recovery, for the title—which translates to “I had much affliction”—seemed appropriate for one in a stage of healing. It is in that spirit of rejuvenation that I discuss the music at hand.

Rolfe’s butterfly

With his usual blend of humility and cogency, Holliger gives us in his liner notes an informed account of these recordings, which together represent a pastiche of reconstructions, arrangements, and restorations from, to recapitulate his quoting of Hegel, the “fury of disappearance” that so befell much of Bach’s oboe literature. Such unrecoverable shadows will have cast themselves over many a Baroque enthusiast and so bear no redrawing here. In any case, after listening to this recording almost once per day since receiving it so kindly from a faraway friend, I have become as intrigued by where its beauties are going as by where they came from.

Holliger’s latest for ECM is so rich it’s almost unhealthy. Three sinfonia introductions, two from among Bach’s cantatas and one from an Easter Oratorio, form its crux. Some music simply stills us, and the darkening swells of “Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis” (BWV 21) constitute such music. Holliger and violinist Erich Höbarth intertwine like birds in slow motion, each leaving a trail of something forgotten, blazing across the sky in a slow-moving fire, by which only one’s fate can be written, ever out of reach but always readable in the light of divine countenance. But where my description may be overblown, Holliger’s technique never is, always held in check by a profound reserve that allows the music to flourish on its own terms. Bach’s mournful reflection sings with a palpable retrograde, and from its first draw pulls the center of our being toward that of some unnamable other.

Of the four concertos offered here, the c-minor for oboe, violin, strings and basso continuo (BWV 1060) is the most humbling. Joined front-stage by the nimble fingerwork of Höbarth, Holliger details a multivalent sound palette. And in the d-minor (BMV 1059) his legato phrasings explore parts of the surrounding orchestral architecture that most oboists would neglect to see, let alone articulate. The slow, waltz-like quality of the Adagio is an especially profound wind-up for the heavenward lob of the Presto that concludes. Holliger looks even more inwardly in the A-major concerto (BWV 1055). Here, he luxuriates in the subtle turns of phrase and moments of tension that seem to stretch between orchestra and soloist and dance across water with every trill. And then there is Bach’s reworking of an Alessandro Marcello concerto, which glistens with poised ornamentations. A lively dance in the Presto percolates with bewitching charm as Holliger populates every interstice with his inextinguishable passion.

As one who believes the assembled performers to be a virtually uncriticizable combination, I risk redundancy in praising their results as a scintillating tour de force of tempo, timbre, and above all vocality. In light of the already wondrous 1982 recordings of BMV 1055 and 1059 on Philips with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (back during the latter’s hyphenated golden age), this could never be anything less than superlative in its complementary light.

Yet one notices also the striking differences between the two. ECM’s recording, while bright, explores this music’s deeper colors, balancing the swirls of refinished wood with an expertly miked continuo. Holliger’s playing has rarely sounded so earthy, so focused on its ephemeral task. These are not reimaginings but reawakenings. And while tempted, I hesitate to use the term “benchmark recording,” as it would speak of its interpretive possibilities as having been branded in time, checked off on the never-ending tick sheet of Bach recordings.

It is also tempting, following Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich, to think that “all roads lead back to Bach.” Yet rather than see Bach as the endpoint to a musical funnel that cuts across histories and geographies, we might better witness the avatar of a composer whose gestures of humility brought to fruition a sense of openness. We do well to resist painting Bach as a Universalist. In search of a alternate analogy, I return to the butterfly. Monarchs are known for their annual 2500-mile migration. Contrary to popular belief, no single pair of wings survives the entire journey. In essence, the group is a kaleidoscope of constant regeneration that returns a different entity from when it left. Like those roving splashes of black and burnt orange, Bach’s music itself travels in a constant state of regeneration, such that every fresh performance, every pair of ears newly enchanted, spreads its own venation of appreciation.

Two weeks ago I ran into Rolfe for the first time since our initial meeting, only to discover that his lepidopteran companion had not survived the cooling Ithaca climate in time to hear this album, but that when he received it he did play it for her. And so, in the interest of continuing this chain of memorial, which began with the death of Bach’s favored pupil (fresh in the composer’s mind when penning the titular sinfonia) and which is linked by Holliger’s loving dedications to the memories of his brother, Eric, and friend Gabriel Bürgin, if you ever find yourself in possession of this jewel of an album I hope you might also take a moment to remember Rolfe’s butterfly, who I like to imagine now rests contentedly on Bach’s shoulder, her proboscis no longer necessary for the music of the spheres that will forever sustain her.

Lauds and Lamentations – Music of Elliott Carter and Isang Yun (ECM New Series 1848/49)

Lauds and Lamentations
Music of Elliott Carter and Isang Yun

Heinz Holliger oboe, English horn
Thomas Zehetmair violin
Ruth Killius viola
Thomas Demenga cello
Recorded September 2001 and February 2002 at Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Elliott Carter is the Benjamin Button of contemporary music: the more he ages, the more youthful he seems to become. At the time of this writing, he’s still going strong at 102. That being said, his is not an endeavor to overcompensate for a fading mortality, but rather a deeper exploration into a key aesthetic of his entire output: possibility. What that possibility looks like depends entirely on the whim of the moment, the colors of scoring and performance that mark his oeuvre at all stages.

Elliott Carter (photo courtesy of The Arts Fuse)

The Oboe Quartet of 2001 is a quintessential example of Carter’s tightly wound exuberance. While distinctly “modern,” there is something downright fun about the piece. It is playful, inventive, and positively bursting with life. And who better than Heinz Holliger to act as its heliocenter? Here is a musician who not only plays the oboe as if it were a part of him, but who also brings a singular admiration for Carter to light in every measure. The quartet is a peanut gallery of moods, some meditative and others jarring, each more fascinating than the last. The final passages show especial and intensive concentration. After this 17-minute chunk of gravid whimsy, the 4 Lauds (1999/1984/2000/1999) for solo violin pat the cheeks of our comatose inner children into wakefulness. Each has its center—be it a note, an atmosphere, a statement, or a phrase—from which emanates a fresh start. A 6 Letter Letter (1996) for English horn in F scales a modest cliff, reaching at last with its final hand-crawl the horizontal plane it seeks. The tongue-in-cheek Figment (1994) for cello alone unfolds like a beautiful lie, for which its companion, Figment II: Remembering Mr. Ives (2001), provides gorgeous contrast with its lower microtonal vowels and high-pitched consonants.

Isang Yun (photo courtesy of Boosey & Hawkes)

The pairing of Carter with Korean dissident Isang Yun (1917-1995) is more than circumstantial. Theirs is an inexplicable sort of affinity. Where the former elicits winsome optimism, the latter drowns us in ceremony. Piri (1971) for solo oboe solo is a discipline in and of itself. Spurred by Holliger’s focused tone, it spins themes from the thinnest of fibers. This deeply internal sense of space and accumulation is expanded in Yun’s own Oboe Quartet of 1994, which skitters sideways like a crab on sand. Over three densely packed movements it starts in collective naivety before falling to its knees amid the slowed air raid sirens at its center. A potentially lucid finale is hinted at through a memorable trill shared between oboe and violin, only to crack under the pressure of earthbound agitations.

For the two oboe quartets featured on Lauds, we must thank Heinz Holliger, who asked both composers to write pieces for this neglected configuration, as yet “unchallenged” since Mozart. Both receive their world premiere recordings here and glisten with the golden seal of any benchmark achievement. The musicians on Lauds are all ideally suited to the material and its “linguistic” stumbling blocks. Thomases Zehetmair and Demenga (both ECM mainstays) and Ruth Killius (violist of the Zehetmair Quartett) round out the limitless talents of Holliger in a program that is sure to yield many new discoveries for years to come.

Heinz Holliger: Violinkonzert (ECM New Series 1890)



Heinz Holliger

Thomas Zehetmair violin
SWR Sinfonieorchester Baden-Baden und Freiburg
Heinz Holliger conductor
Recorded September 2002, Propstei St. Gerold
Engineer: Stephan Schellmann
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Recorded December 2002, Konzerthaus Freiburg
Engineers: Helmut Hanusch and Ute Hesse
Co-production of ECM Records/Südwestrundfunk

The work of Swiss painter Louis Soutter (1871-1942) might have been forgotten were it for the efforts of such artists as Julian Schnabel and Arnulf Rainer, who cite him as a vital influence not only in their own creative lives, but also in the development of modern art at large. With this captivating ECM recording, composer Heinz Holliger pulls that thread just a little farther into the realm of the orchestra. His homage to the artist comes in the form of a Violin Concerto, which bears additional dedication to its performer here, Thomas Zehetmair. The concerto came to being when the composer was commissioned to write a commemorative piece for the 75th birthday of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. Once he discovered that Soutter had once been a violinist of the same entity, he needed no further impetus to evoke the artist’s already musical visuality. Holliger penned the concerto in three parts between 1993 and 1995, but later added a 17-minute “Epilogue” based on Soutter’s painting Before the Massacre. In this, Holliger swallows the soloist whole in favor of selfless anti-climax.

Holliger develops, as he is wont to, this sprawling work as if from a single droplet. With its ripple now audible, he combines reflections through which the exigencies of a single art are recast in the color schemes of private exhibition. The soloist, then, becomes a tattered traveler, a weary guide whose footsteps might very well continue to lead us on the right path even in the absence of a body to give them weight and signal. As the instrumentation becomes more self-aware, it conforms to the forces of language. Like a piece of silk surrendered to the wind it takes on the shapes of those forces. It is a sidelong glance, a skewed haunt in dissonant twilight, a ray of light in the trees where there is nothing else to see. The forest folds in on its heart, gnarled and rotting from the inside like a termite-infested house. Yet a certain peace also flows in those veins, something that captures and holds on to the light as nothing else can. Even at the densest moments the instruments sound vitally present as they fractal around the violin’s profoundly internal tracings. Starlight seems to glow from its F holes while in dialogue with hammered dulcimer and a bevy of percussion. It falls at the edge of dawn, spitting fire even as it speaks in ice, dotting the sky with flashes of supernovae, each the size of a pin’s head poked through the backcloth of a swooning catharsis (should the patient reader need a less uncertain comparison, think Berio’s Voci). It is a looming and gravid entity, one furiously alive even as it drains itself backwards into a high-pitched flight, joining a flock of microscopic kin into a universe where the wind rules in silence.

Following Holliger, who says of his Soutter variations, “I make no attempt to translate his painting into music: going out from it, I try to realize a ritual of annihilation,” we cannot simply open the concerto like a music box whose only melody is the cover painting. His is an ode to and of shadows, a gallery of emotional perforations, voices, and obsessions drawn in slow-motion charcoal, then burned to make more. The moment we avert our eyes and ears is when the music begins speaking to us…

Reflecting on Soutter’s life, the last 20 years of which were spent in a mental hospital, we may find ourselves wondering what moved him as a youth before his mind splashed its discoveries of erosion across the page. In the “Ballade” from Eugène Ysaÿe’s op. 27 Sonata for solo violin, which begins the album, we hear that youth epitomized. Its scintillating energy is made all the more visceral for Zehetmair’s flawless diction (a preview of things soon to come), by which he renders a virtuosic bumblebee’s flight (Rimsky-Korsakov need not apply) toward a fury of an ending. Again, the choice is calculated, for Soutter studied with Ysaÿe before replacing bow with brush, music with pigment and sweat. And though the sweat has long evaporated into overcast skies, the pigment remains, an open wound that smells of sound.